A HIGH-POWERED HOWARD

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (courtesy Verduno)

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard in his prime (courtesy Verduno)

Howard in his prime (courtesy Di Verduno)

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday (courtesy Di Verduno)

During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations.  His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen.  The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind  —  a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt.  As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are,  Pygmalion is Howard’s picture  —  as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.

Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds.  This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.

But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face.  Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal.  As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.

And speaking of its vintage:  Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind.  In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.

In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part.  He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is  —  and solid actor and shining star.

Pygmalion
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
1938

Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog.  If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.

https://inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com

NEXT FRIDAY POST February 24

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

PHILLIPPE’S FIVE FINGERS

FIVE FINGERS
Laurence Malkin
20006
an original screenplay by Malkin and Chad Thumann

While en route from his native Netherlands to establish a food program for undernourished children in Morocco, Martijn and his hired British guide are kidnapped and held hostage by Arab terrorists who do not accept his food program story.  Convinced that he is a CIA agent, they torture him in an attempt to make him give up the names of his accomplices.

Ryan Phillippe is Martijn

Ryan Phillippe is Martijn

As long as we stay in the one room where Martijn (Ryan Phillippe) is a hostage and he and his captor fight a duel of wills, Five Fingers is riveting.  Flashbacks to the character’s earlier life, though brief and well done, dilute the tension.  Not fatally, though.  Director, editor and actor have us taut again in moments.

Time-lapse cuts within the hostage scene occasionally open with Phillippe looking less stressed than he should.  Make-up (or lack of it) seems the principal problem though actor and director share some fault.  This is a quibble on a film of vigorous suspense and a performance of mature quality.  Everyone in the cast, including Laurence Fishburne, is very good.  But Phillippe, Hollywood’s most underrated actor, is outstanding.

See Rick’s Flicks of 8/23/13 for Phillippe in Straight A’s.

NEXT FRIDAY POST February 10
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

THE FORTY-SEVEN RONIN

THE FORTY-SEVEN RONIN

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era     Kenji Mizoguchi     1941, 1942

Though fascinated and gripped by every moment of this film, I found myself wondering, afterwards, if its length is pretentious.  Events are recounted and explanations of them given two and three times.  A scene from Part One (released originally as a separate film) suddenly appears in Part Two, jolting me into realizing that I had been viewing a flashback.

The Forty-seven Ronin of Mizoguchi

The Forty-seven Ronin of Mizoguchi

I do always view Japanese cinema with skepticism  —  skepticism of myself.  Despite years of enjoying films from Japan, I am solidly aware of my naïveté as regards Far East culture.  The departure of Oishi’s wife and children in Part One is stately and time-consuming and moving but, to my western eyes, without explanation of the wife’s motivation, without showing or addressing her change of mind.  We had last seen and heard her swearing never to leave her husband.  Is what I am looking for in the scene obvious to the Japanese viewer  —  or to those more knowledgeable of Japanese mores and history?  Like, say, David Bax.  READ HIS BLOG Battleship Pretension of 8/27/15  (www.battleshippretension.com). With perspicacity and precision and brevity that I cannot match, he writes of The Forty-Seven Ronin, the intent of much Japanese cinema and the distinction between our two cultures.

NEXT FRIDAY POST January 27

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

FASSBENDER DIRECTED BY ANDREA ARNOLD

FASSBENDER/MCQUEEN/ARNOLD

HUNGER          Steve McQueen          2008

The first part of Hunger presents Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) entering Maze prison in Northern Ireland.  As we watch Davey being thrust into the routine of incarceration, we learn about the nakedness that IRA prisoners opt for, their policy of not washing themselves combined with smearing their feces on the walls of their cells and pouring their urine over the floors.

Michael Fassbender in Hunger

Michael Fassbender in Hunger

This is the world Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) enters after the first half-hour of the film.  The charisma that is Fassbender’s becomes the charisma of the historical Sands, a leader among men whom he will lead, first,to riot.

SPOILER ALERT:  The second part of Hunger is a single take  —  something more than twenty minutes  —  a conversation between Bobby Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) who tries to talk him out of the planned hunger strike into which he next plans to lead the other prisoners, a strike in which he and eight others will die.

In the third part of Hunger we watch Sands sicken and die before his mother’s eyes and ours.  As he dies his psyche performs what time immemorial has told us all psyches do  —  pass their lives before their own eyes.  Sands prefers his boyhood during which he seems early to have embraced St. Paul’s exhortation to run a good race to the end.

As prison guard Raymond Lohan, Stuart Graham is outstanding.  Fassbender is wondrous.

FISH TANK          Andrea Arnold (writer & director)          2009

This is a coming-of-age tale of  frankly unlikable fifteen-year-old Mia.  At times she overhears, then spies on her mother and the mother’s boyfriend Conor having quite creative sex.  In her growing sexual consciousness, Mia (Katie Jarvis) becomes fascinated by Conor while until now her passion has been dance.  Why dance?  An escape from her dismal, disordered world?

And why is there no back story?  What is the matter with Mia’s slatternly mother?  What IS her story?  SPOILER ALERT:  What is the matter with the unfaithful Conor.  We eventually learn, along with Mia, that he has a wife and child.  Would Arnold think I’m seeking clichés in wanting back stories?

Creative Commons photo of Fassbender

Creative Commons photo of Fassbender

This is an ugly narrative set in an ugly council estate in Essex.  While Katie Jarvis is arresting as Mia, what would Fish Tank have been without Fassbender’s charismatic sexuality as Conor?  This puts both the film’s females, mother and daughter, in the position of defining themselves by the man in their lives; in this instance, the same man.  Is this really what Arnold wants?  Or does it work against her theme?  Or is sex her theme?

NEXT Friday POST January 13

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

FROM ENGLAND IN THE ’80S

My Beautiful Laundrette
Stephen Frears
1985

This discussion contains SPOILERS.

This was a brave film in 1985.  In the last shot Omar and Johnny face each other over a basin as they wash up after a street fight.  They splash each other with water in a scene of sexual playfulness.  These two men are going to be happy together.  Neither has been killed or had to die.  Neither has even had to give the other up.  One reviewer pointed out that neither of them has had to defend his love to family or friends.

What My Beautiful Laundrette does not do or say frees it from cliché and gives it power.

It should perhaps be noted that all the female characters end unhappy, including the film’s most likeable person, Shirley Anne Field as Rachel, the mistress of Omar’s uncle.  Neither Omar nor Johnny  —  friends since school days, now unselfconscious lovers  —  is always likable, but Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis have us pulling for them.

Like the male love affair, the film’s social and racial commentary on England and its Pakistanis is indirect and subtle and all the stronger for it.

Gordon Warnecke -- photo used with kind permission of Liam Bluett (liambluett.com)

Gordon Warnecke — photo used with kind permission of Liam Bluett (liambluett.com)

Gordon Warnecke is perfectly cast as Omar.  Roshan Seth and Charu Bala Chokshi are bedrock human as his father and uncle.  Daniel Day-Lewis as friend Johnny is riveting.  As frequent Rick’s Flick correspondent Becca put it:  You cannot not watch him.

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Explore the splendid photographs and rich commentary of Liam Bluett’s “Movies and Portraits Through the Ages.”

 

NEXT FRIDAY POST December 9

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

FROM SILENT GERMANY TO NINETIES HOLLYWOOD

Tartuffe          F.W. Murnau          1926

The idea of Molière’s play as a film within a film is inexplicable.  Molière never needs updating; and the framing story, which is unoriginal, uninteresting and overlong, can’t compete with Molière  —  except that the alteration of the original and the reduction of into essentially three scenes has emasculated a great comedy which is never funny here.  Molière not funny.

Murnau at work, courtesy of New York Public Library

Murnau at work, courtesy of New York Public Library

Werner Krauss is never interesting as Orgon.  But the great Jannings is unforgivably over-the-top , physically repulsive and not recognizably human.  The superb role of the maid Dorine is a travesty in this vulgar version.  Only Lil Dagover as Orgon’s long-suffering wife offers a good performance in the strangest film from the Murnau canon.

Why such splendid production design and outstanding photography have been invested in this botch remains a mystery.

Pauline Kael, in her essay on Murnau in World Film Directors, V. 1 by John Wakeman, quotes Gilberto Perez, academic and film critic, whose description I am happy to make my final word:  “the performance is not of the Molière play but of a coarsening and reduction of it.  Yet…somehow this version of Molière turns out as a faintly comic variation of Dracula, with Jannings as Tartuffe suggesting a fat Nosferatu…and a sense of unexpressed horror pervading the soft lighting and the graceful architecture of the sets.”

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Rick’s Journal    —    MY FILM CAREER

The Devil’s Own          Alan J. Pakula          1997

I like this immensely.  The moral choices that the characters face, if not original, are hard, always interesting, and heartbreakingly played.  Ford, even subtler than the script, is outstanding.  Pakula and his camera are in love with Pitt, and the expressive face is almost always up to the requisite emotion as the film moves to what has long been an inevitable conclusion.

The angry imdb reviews, denouncing the film from both sides of the Irish Troubles, prove its excellence.

Harrison Ford as Tom O’Meara
Brad Pitt as Frankie McGuire
Ruben Blades as Edwin Diaz

NEXT FRIDAY POST DECEMBER 2

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

RUSSIAN EARTH AND TEXAN TURF

Rick’s Journal     –     MY FILM CAREER

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON THE RECENTLY VIEWED

Earth           Alexander Dovzhenko          1930

Dovzhenko

Dovzhenko

The waving grain of Russia’s fields is lyrical and hypnotic.  Dovzhenko’s tense, emotion-laden skies.  The strength in peasant faces, young and old in between.  The peacefulness of natural death and the joyful taste of pears moments before.  Long takes of hanging fruit  —  and my own recollection of my film history prof’s response to a student laughing at them:  “To each culture its own choice of fruitful globes to emphasize and display.”

The delightful sequence when the new tractor is found to have no water in the radiator and the farmers in their intimate way supply it by  — as the subtitles have it  —  letting fly.

All this beauty and humor and the face of the great Semyon Svashenko asVasili  —  not to mention his moonlight dance (see Rick’s Flicks June 6, 2016).  SPOILER ALERT:  Some surprising sexuality in a Russian silent:  Basil’s intended makes nakedly clear one aspect of the dead Vasili she will miss.

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Giant          George Stevens          1956

The size of Texas  —  the expanse of landscape  —  sandy, dusty distance  —  all captured NOT by screen size but by directorial sensitivity and camera placement.  Novelist Edna Ferber spent three weeks in Texas and nailed Texans.  Stevens and his photographers nail the land in which Texans live.

Director and stars

Director and stars

Contemporary critics were hard on Stevens’ choice of leads.  The critics were wrong.  Sixty years after, the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor hold up remarkable well, and they speak each other and play off each other like they married couple they are.  They work skillfully with as much psychological profundity as Hollywood scripts of the era allowed.  Hudson is particularly good in a long part in which he ages convincingly.

Hudson, knight without a horse but with armor shining

Hudson, knight without a horse but with armor shining

This time around I found James Dean’s older Jett Rink more believable than in earlier viewings.  He was an actor in his mid-twenties at the time of this performance and acquits himself well.

A young, wanting-to-act, healthy looking Dennis Hopper is especially engaging.  A youthful Carroll Baker, “presented” in the credits, is already marvelously sexy and also moving in her part.  Jane Withers is very fine.

Interestingly Stevens repeats the funeral from Shane, including the bored child.

There is a lot of Giant, three hours and seventeen minutes of it.  It is almost all enthralling.

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 9
Look for “Seeing and Hearing George Stevens discuss his Giant.”

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick